Tom Lounsbury: Squirrel dogs as dependable as a loyal friend
The first time that I ever hunted with what I would call a “squirrel dog” was back when I was a kid. I was hunting near the Cass River with a friend the same age as me, and we were using his unique hunting dog that was half beagle and half Border collie.
This stocky dog weighed about 30 pounds and looked pretty much like a beagle with the black-and-white markings of a Border collie. Crossbreds can often be incredible hunters, and this dog was no exception.
Pheasant season was in full progress, and for us farm kids, any small game we encountered in the field would easily satisfy us. Plus, we were with just the right dog for the occasion.
The dog happily howled after everything it pursued, and my friend would comment on the tone of the howl as to what the dog was chasing. When he said it was a pheasant, sure enough, it was, and when he said it was a rabbit, yep, it sure was.
When my friend eventually said the dog had a squirrel treed, I believed him. Sure enough, we found the dog standing back howling and circling a tree and looking up at a plump fox squirrel flattening itself out on a tree limb.
This was certainly my kind of dog, no matter what was entailed in its lineage. Our single-shot shotguns also had a good workout that day on a grand slam of small game (including one rooster pheasant, two rabbits, one woodcock, two grouse and three fox squirrels) thanks to a versatile hunting dog some folks would simply call a mutt.
Squirrel hunting is popular in many states, including Michigan, but it is truly a passionate pastime in southern regions of our country. It is only natural that dogs would be employed to locate and “tree” squirrels, and using what are termed “squirrel dogs” is a time-honored tradition in the south. It also has a steadily growing following in more northern states.
It was 11 years ago that I got a chance to go hunting with an avid squirrel dog fan, Jerry Quinn of Cass City, and his pair of feists. According to Quinn, squirrel dogs that weigh 30 pounds or less are called feists, and those over 30 pounds are called curs.
All squirrel dogs tend to vary a bit in physical description, and come in all colors, but they share one thing in common, which is avidly and vocally locating, pursuing and treeing squirrels by using both scent and sight.
They also don’t jump about the base of a tree that a squirrel has climbed, but rather stand back a ways and keep an eye on their quarry that could start traveling from tree to tree thanks to overlapping limbs. A less observant dog would otherwise be jumping up a tree minus the squirrel.
Quinn and I were hunting in a Thumb-area maple sugar bush which used plastic tubing to transfer maple sap. Squirrels simply love to gnaw plenty of holes in the tubing, much to the distress of the landowner. Thus, we all but had a red carpet waiting for us when we arrived.
Once Quinn released his eager pair of feists in the woods, they immediately started casting about for fresh scent. A recent January thaw had left the woods with a damp and leaf-littered floor that offered excellent scenting conditions, and in no time at all the pair of feists cut loose with sharp “yaps” in hot pursuit.
Quinn and I headed through the woods toward the source of an obviously treed squirrel, which had us ducking under tubing while we plowed through blackberry brambles.
Both feists were circling, yapping and keeping a visual on not one, but two fox squirrels treed in the treetops. Late-season fox squirrels aren’t easy, and these did some tree-to-tree transfers, thanks to handy limbs, in opposite directions once we arrived. This didn’t fluster the feists any, as each instinctively selected a squirrel and fervently stayed with it. Quinn and I did the same, with him banking right and me to the left.
Quinn was using a scoped, customized Ruger 10/22, and I was toting a scoped Remington 597. Both rifles are superbly accurate, semi-auto “.22’s” that will get the job done if the shooter does his/her part.
Before I could get a shot, my squirrel made an exit into a handy hole in a tree trunk. Then I heard the sharp crack of Quinn’s short-barreled Ruger, and I turned in time to see the squirrel come tumbling down out of the tree. It only bounced once on the ground before a feist had it clamped in his jaws and was returning it to his master.
In a matter of minutes, the feists were on yet another squirrel, and I was thoroughly smitten with using a squirrel dog.
A couple winters ago, I took the plunge and purchased a young black-and-brindle female Mountain Cur, which I named Jilly. Due to the timing, I started her out on my farm pursuing cottontails and she fit right into the task, assisting my old beagle.
The following fall, Jilly joined my old Brittany (and the beagle, too) pursuing wild pheasants. I don’t mind having versatile hunting dogs, like my friend’s crossbred dog way back when.
The best way to start a young dog out on specialized hunting matters is to have it work with seasoned, older dogs, and that is how I wanted to start Jilly on treeing squirrels.
My friend Ken Dalton, of Lapeer, joined me with two “squirrel-seasoned” Mountain Curs last winter, to go hunting in a couple Thumb area maple syrup woodlots that were being pestered by abundant plastic-gnawing squirrels.
Jilly got fully introduced into the act of treeing matters, and even learned the hard way how not to grab a fox squirrel head-on that had been shot out of a tree and landed with enough life left in it to still be able to bite and stay latched onto an unsuspecting dog’s upper lip! Yep, folks, Jilly sure knows better now!
I’ve always enjoyed working with more than one dog on certain tasks, and treeing squirrels happens to be one of them. Last spring, I obtained a young female Black-Mouth Cur (“Old Yeller” in the book was of this breed). Since she was a natural stub-tail with a black muzzle and a rusty-red coat, I automatically named her Ruby.
Like Jilly, Ruby is real friendly with people and other dogs and especially loves children, as well as being a natural hunter with a willingness to learn. She and Jilly blended right together as a team from the start.
A couple years ago, I found out that Jerry Quinn, who had introduced me to his squirrel dogs, now was using Russian Laikas for this pastime. Thanks to Quinn, last summer I came into possession of a 2-year-old Russian Laika female named Elsa, a real friendly jewel of a dog, now giving me a trio of squirrel dogs to enjoy plenty of time in the woods (the Michigan squirrel season, and rabbit season, too, runs from mid-September to the end of March).
While the Mountain Cur and Black-Mouth Cur are very old American breeds (developed by pioneers in the wilderness) that are classified in the hound family, the (Old World) Russian Laika is in the Spitz family and is a very ancient breed with legendary hunting capabilities, which includes treeing quarry.
The fact is, in color, size and profile, Elsa looks identical to a Michigan coyote, except she has a coiled tail which lies on her back (coyote tails hang straight, and with no coils). Needless to say, folks, despite her coiled tail, Elsa wears a hunter orange vest whenever we venture out into the field.
I am truly looking forward to all the adventures to come with my three (versatile) squirrel dogs. Rabbit hunting, too, is a definite bonus, and it is all a great way to shorten some often very long winter months.
Email Tom Lounsbury at email@example.com